I'm currently reading a great book called Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. One chapter points out that good parents adjust the boundaries for each phase of a child's life. Babies need attachment. A six-month-old can be overwhelmed by a parent even stepping out of the room momentarily, unsure if the parent will ever return. However, every toddler learns the word "No" and begins to separate herself from her parents by asserting her own wants and opinions. Boundaries appropriate for a 16-year-old may endanger a 6-year-old; boundaries appropriate for a 6-year-old may smother a 16-year-old. Growing up and gaining independence is a gradual process.
|This and all other photos in this post are by Matthew Francis Pye.|
Their birth mom gave up her rights soon after delivery.
Their adoptive mom passed away in 2014, before the youngest one's third birthday.
Their aunt moved away earlier this year.
Now I'm joining the ranks of maternal figures who haven't stuck around to see these kids reach adulthood.
In June 2015, when I met them, I was already guessing I'd be with them little more than two years before returning to Cambodia. I knew they weren't mine to keep, but I threw my heart into it anyway, about four days a week. I loved them through hugs and laughs, homework and room cleanings, tantrums and time-outs. I brought them with me to church, to the park, to my house, to the playground. They were the source of my tears, my prayers, and (some can attest) too many of my stories. They felt almost like my kids. But I couldn't offer them permanence.
Once or twice, early on, the younger two tried to call me "Mom." Nope. The oldest asked me, "Will you still be here when I'm in fourth grade?" Absolutely. "What about fifth grade?" Um... not sure but I doubt it.
Knowing that my time at their house was limited, I've tried from the beginning to encourage independence. The kids have started putting away their own laundry, doing homework without me constantly by their side, resolving disputes without my intervention. The oldest makes great spaghetti and scrambled eggs (not together!); the middle one learned yesterday how to use a carrot peeler; the youngest can buckle herself in. I'm proud of the progress they've made. They're not grown-ups, but they're growing up.
Mary Poppins the movie character inspires me. She makes kids do the right thing - and enjoy it. Mary Poppins the book character infuriates me. When the kids worry about her abandoning them, she always snaps dismissively, "I'll stay till the wind blows," or "I'll stay until my necklace chain breaks." In other words, "None of your business how long I'll stick around."
When I was young, reading her words always gave me chills. What's scarier to a child than unreliable grown-ups? That's the last legacy I wanted to leave these kids. So I've tried to be clear about my timetable, without needlessly rubbing it in. The little two especially have a hazier grasp on time. When the middle one heard six months ago that I was definitely moving back, he was devastated. I had to carefully explain to him that we still had all of spring and all of summer to enjoy together. Then he put it out of his mind almost completely.
There are still unresolved questions: Will my new Cambodian phone let me text with the oldest? How often will we skype? Will e-mail work for them? When will I visit? I'm trying to reassure them that I'll be emotionally available, without making promises I can't keep. It won't be the same, that's for sure.
The past month, we've had some special times together. Trips into Philly to a fun new playground and a historic battleship. Portraits. Tonight's our backyard campout. I'm a bit quicker to initiate hugs and a bit slower to say "downie brownie" when my arms ache from the younger two's "uppie guppy" requests. I want them to be convinced to their core that my leaving has nothing to do with them. I've shown them a video of my Cambodia teammates and invited them to hear me talk about my plans for life in Cambodia, helping them glimpse my vision for moving back there.
Preparing to leave has been a heart-wrenching act of faith. How do you tell kids to walk without you by their side, when they're still small enough to be held sometimes? It's been great to see people stepping up, though. Their dad is letting my mom take over part of my role with homework, hugs, and household. People at my church have grown attached to them and are looking out for them in various ways. We're going today to meet their new teachers - teachers that I've been praying would love these kids well. I'm hopeful that these kids will continue to get an "uppie" when they need it, so that they can keep learning to stand on their own two feet.